GOP wins may encourage Ehrlich to run for Md. governor

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; C01

A string of Republican victories, including this month's stunning upset in Massachusetts, has raised the stakes considerably for one of the nation's last remaining 2010 holdouts: Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who has yet to say whether he'll try to regain the Maryland governorship.

Ehrlich's actions indicate that he is moving much closer to seeking a rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), even lining up dozens of fundraising events should he move forward. But Ehrlich -- who in 2002 became the state's first Republican governor in a generation, only to lose to O'Malley four years later -- said in an interview he is unlikely to announce a decision before March.

Ehrlich's continued deliberations are testing the patience of many in his party, who fear that a late decision not to run could sink the chances of any other GOP candidate during a year in which Republicans elsewhere are feeling emboldened in places once thought unwinnable.

"If I were in charge, I would be banging on the men's room door," said Don Murphy, a former Maryland legislator and GOP strategist. "The question I would ask Bob Ehrlich is: If not now, when? It doesn't get any more simple than that."

Ehrlich has launched an "interactive listening tour" with community and business leaders across the state, and he said he wants to complete the remaining three or four scheduled meetings before making a decision.

A former jock who remains a fierce competitor, Ehrlich said he was encouraged by a poll he commissioned last month that showed a much tighter race with O'Malley than recent public surveys have suggested.

"I'm willing to serve," Ehrlich said after a stop last week in Hagerstown, where he also headlined a fundraiser for two Republican legislative candidates. "I am willing to do this again. . . . Right now, it's 'Where are the people?' and 'Do they want you?' . . . I think last summer people knew my inclination was 'no.' Right now, my inclination is, 'We really have to look at this.'"

A changed atmosphere

Ehrlich has been staunchly noncommittal for months, citing Maryland's heavy Democratic tilt in public assessments and private conversations. But much has changed around him recently.

In November, Republican candidates prevailed in governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey -- two states President Obama carried just a year before. And this month's Senate upset in Massachusetts has emboldened Republicans to believe that the mood is right to win just about anywhere.

Some party faithful have eagerly read into Ehrlich's activities that he's already running.

"I can't believe that Bob is all over the state, raising money and campaigning for other candidates, and building goodwill in the process, if he is not in campaign mode himself," said Ellen Sauerbrey, Maryland's Republican nominee for governor in 1994 and 1998. "I think the tea leaves suggest an announcement is coming."

For the past year, many analysts suggested that Ehrlich might take a pass on the 2010 governor's race to preserve his political options for the future. A second loss to O'Malley, the reasoning went, would make it harder to run for another office later. But now that the political climate has become far more favorable, fellow Republicans have suggested Ehrlich risks more by not running against O'Malley.

"I think the party would be extremely upset," Sauerbrey said. "If Bob chose not to run at the last minute, it would be very difficult for anyone else to come in without the fundraising ability and name recognition he has."

Among those who say they remain in the dark about Ehrlich's intentions is Larry Hogan, who has emerged as the Republican's leading backup candidate in a state without much of a GOP bench.

Hogan, a real estate broker who served as Ehrlich's appointments secretary, a Cabinet-level position, announced an exploratory bid for governor in September. But he said at the time that he would not run if Ehrlich, whom he considers a good friend, gets in the race.

"I've encouraged him to make a decision sooner rather than later, and like everyone else, I'm anxiously awaiting his decision," Hogan said Thursday.

To this point, Maryland Republicans have done little to try to capitalize on the national mood in statewide races. Hogan and other gubernatorial hopefuls have remained deferential to Ehrlich. And no serious candidates have emerged for attorney general or comptroller, two separately elected offices on the ballot this fall. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) faces a little-known opponent for reelection.

The downsides

In the 2006 governor's race, Ehrlich lost to O'Malley by 6.5 percentage points. And even though Republicans are winning in places where they normally struggle, there remains much about Maryland that gives pause even to some of his allies.

Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in party registration, a gap that has grown since 2006. And although the ranks of independent voters are growing, they are not nearly the force in Maryland as in New Jersey and Massachusetts, where they propelled Republicans to victory.

Moreover, African Americans, a loyal Democratic voting bloc, make up a far larger share of the electorate in Maryland than in most states, including Massachusetts.

A poll released two weeks ago by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies showed that despite the sour national mood, O'Malley held a nine-point lead over Ehrlich in a hypothetical rematch.

Ehrlich would also start the race at a significant financial disadvantage. Earlier this month, O'Malley reported having more than $5.7 million in the bank. Ehrlich helped other GOP candidates with money during the past year but raised little for himself, reporting only about $141,000 in an account he has kept open since his 2006 loss.

What are the odds?

Ehrlich, a former state delegate and U.S. congressman, has said repeatedly that he needs to be convinced he can win before running. A large part of his calculus involves predicting who will show up. In that respect, Ehrlich said his polling, which aides declined to share, was promising.

Ehrlich said the December survey showed him within striking distance of O'Malley. The results grew more favorable, he said, the more the sample was narrowed to include those most likely to vote. One reason Ehrlich advisers cite for delaying an announcement is to continue monitoring the public mood.

Another reason is that they expect an onslaught from Democrats if and when Ehrlich decides to run. Democratic Party officials are preparing to portray Ehrlich as a big spender -- out of step with the current public mood -- by citing larger increases in his budgets than those O'Malley has submitted in recessionary times.

Pressed about the timing of his decision, Ehrlich acknowledged it is unlikely to come before March -- the same month he announced in 2002, the year he upset then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D).

"March would be a good time frame in terms of having a decision," Ehrlich said.

During stops on his listening tour, some people have cautioned him against running, Ehrlich said. Some have urged him to instead challenge Mikulski, who enjoys far more robust approval ratings than O'Malley. But mostly "It's 'Go for it' in the governor's race," Ehrlich said.

Still, in an address to about 200 people Monday night at the event in Hagerstown, Ehrlich barely acknowledged his own political deliberations after praising the two candidates for delegate.

"I don't know what's going to happen with me in the future," he told the crowd. "I do not know."

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